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Bishops begin scrutiny of Schools Bill

26 May 2022

Safeguarding religious ethos and sustainability of academisation among early concerns


PROTECTING the religious character, governance, quality, and sustainability of Church of England schools as the Government moves towards universal academisation were among the main concerns of bishops debating the Schools Bill in the House of Lords this week.

The Bill skipped the House of Commons to be given its Second Reading in the Lords on Monday, just two months after the publication of the education White Paper Opportunity for All. The paper proposes that, by 2030, every school in England will be part of — or at least in the process of joining — a multi-academy trust (MAT).

To fulfil this, the Bill would introduce a new set of academy standards, to replace the Independent Schools Standards. It would also introduce statutory powers over MAT structures and governance. There are proposals for increasing minimum school hours (32.5 a week by next year) and pupil attendance (through a new national register), and for a National Funding Formula.

Academies are state-funded schools in England, directly funded by the Department for Education (DfE), which are independent of local authorities and do not have to follow a national curriculum or timetable. There are no academies in Wales or Scotland.

MATs, also known as academy chains, operate more than one academy under an umbrella funding agreement. There are currently 1460 MATs in England which manage at least two schools.

The Church of England is the biggest provider of academies; about one third (1535) of all church schools are academies within 54 MATs that hold C of E articles of association with the DfE — a condition of their DfE funding agreement, which sets out the trust’s charitable purpose and governance structure. Under the reforms, the remaining 2927 church schools would be converted and placed within MATs.

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, who is the lead bishop on education, told peers: “Since a Labour Government introduced academies in the early 2000s, that system has been evolving but bringing complexity and fragmentation. . . It is right that we give detailed attention to ensure that academies are placed within a firm legislative context rather than rely on the largely contractual nature of the present arrangements.”

A government “fact sheet” on the statutory faith protections for religious academies in the Bill states: “This legislation will provide statutory protections so that such schools are able to retain equivalent governance arrangements to those that applied to them in the maintained sector.” Grammar schools would also maintain their current status, it promises.

While this was welcome, the Government should expect amendments to clarify some of the more ambiguous clauses in the Bill, Bishop Butler said.

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, also spoke during the debate. He was particularly concerned about the distinction between the future governance (under MATs) of voluntary controlled schools, of which 1625 are C of E, and voluntary aided schools, of which 1491 are C of E.

Controlled schools are managed by the local authority, which employs staff, is responsible for admissions, agrees the RE syllabus, and can advise the governing body, on which the church governors are a minority; aided schools are required to contribute to capital funding, but allow the Church more autonomy: church governors are in the majority and can appoint and employ all staff, are responsible for admissions, and determine the RE syllabus.

The Bill says that only MATs that comprise more than 50 per cent aided converter schools will be allowed to have a majority of church directors and members. Since half of church schools are controlled, Dr Croft sought assurance on this point.

This issue has already been raised by the education, ecclesiastical, and charity team of Lee Bolton Monier-Williams LLP (LBMW), solicitors whose clients include dioceses. LBMW’s education adviser, David Whittington, said: “The likelihood of any individual trust having a majority of [aided schools] is quite remote. This will mean that very few church academies will actually be able — at the level of members and directors of the MAT — to have church-majority governance.”

Apart from governance issues, Bishop Butler said, the Church was equally concerned about the quality of teachers, teaching, and opportunities for children across the curriculum (not just in reading, writing, and maths as stipulated in the Bill), and across all schools, not just faith schools.

“With many families struggling to juggle complex issues of poverty, [and] additional health or special educational needs, we need the state to provide support, not simply punitive measures to enforce attendance,” he said.

“Every child having a good teacher is at the heart of the Government’s strategy, but I am concerned that the current process of re-accrediting initial teacher education providers seems somewhat flawed, with many established providers being unsuccessful in the first round. This is likely to exacerbate the teacher-supply crisis.”

A former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries, after paying tribute to teachers, said that he intended to bring an amendment on the teaching of “fundamental British values”, which, he suggested, should be changed to “the values of British citizenship”. As it stood in the Prevent strategy 2014, the phrase was “skewed in one direction — tolerance of all faiths — to the neglect of other fundamental values”. He said that the purpose of his amendment was “to strengthen the statement on values by making it less lopsided and more philosophically coherent”.

Responding to the debate on behalf of the Government, Baroness Barren said that she would “follow up” on these and other concerns, including “clarifying points around governance”.

The Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, said: “We welcome the parts of the Bill relating to schools with a religious character because they will ensure that the contractual arrangements for Church of England academies regarding governance, RE and collective worship will be transferred on to a statutory basis. This is vitally important as we look to an educational landscape where all schools are in multi-academy trusts. The National Society is working in partnership with the DfE to make sure that the Bill, its explanatory notes, and the subsequent regulations will achieve this aim.”

The Church Times education special issue will appear on 10 June, including a feature on the education White Paper and the Schools Bill.

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